University of Calgary

Water knowledge

Program gives Central American students skills to manage water problems at home

Exporting water knowledge

By Leanne Yohemas

Sadia Lanza (left) and Lesbia Castellon are working in the U of C’s
Sadia Lanza (left) and Lesbia Castellon are working in the U of C’s hydrogeology MSc program. / Photo by Ken Bendiktsen
Water. It seems plentiful here, so we tend to take it for granted.

But in many places in the developing world, finding, protecting and maintaining a long-lasting supply of fresh water is a constant challenge. A program based out of the University of Calgary is finding solutions to these problems.

It’s called CARA—the Central American Water Resource Management Network—and its focus is to help students in Central and South America learn the scientific and practical aspects of water management through MSc programs established at local universities. Most graduates go on to teach at these universities or work for government water agencies, non-governmental organizations or private consulting firms. 

It’s not just about putting in a water well or tapping into a spring,” says David Bethune, a research associate with the Department of Geoscience and project manager for CARA. 

“It’s about the capacity required to treat and transport drinking water, manage wastewater understanding—where that water comes from and its importance to an entire watershed—and how to protect and manage watersheds within the local context of the legal, social, cultural and economic realities of each country and each community.”

The vast majority of water supply in Central America and much of South America is derived from groundwater because surface water is often polluted with sewage and agricultural runoff and is unreliable during the annual dry season.

Unfortunately, the groundwater profession, hydrogeology, is almost non-existent in the less-developed countries and little attention is paid to the bigger picture of long-term management and protection of groundwater.

CARA, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, began more than a decade ago in Costa Rica and has since trained more than 100 students at the MSc level. Although the program is administered out of the U of C, it is a partnership with the University of Waterloo—where the program was founded under the late Robert N. Farvolden—as well as universities in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Bolivia.

Sadia Lanza, 25, is one of two Hondurans in the U of C hydrogeology MSc program and will return to a permanent faculty position at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. She became interested in the program after seeing water problems first hand when she was working on her undergraduate thesis. Her research involved designing and initializing construction, including water supplies, for 445 houses for low-income families.

“Some of the main problems I found were the same common problems we have throughout our country related to water, and, in particular, the high contamination of surface water. That is why in these last years, most of the urbanizations in our country are using groundwater wells for water supply, instead of surface water,” says the second-year graduate student, who is also a civil engineer.

Lesbia Castellon, also in her second year, says the premise behind the program is sound. “It’s a good idea to come here and learn and go back and teach. We are not the only ones who benefit,” says the 29-year old, who will also return to Honduras to teach.

“I never cease to be inspired by the Latin American students,” says Bethune. “They are so hungry for this type of education as it was not previously available in their countries and, after graduation, they make very important contributions to their countries’ development.”
Still, there are a few challenges ahead.

“In Canada, you have all the materials to carry out field research,” says Valeria Delgado, who graduated from the program five years ago and is now a professor at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan program graduates about seven or eight students a year, with a total of 17 since 2003.

Brendan Mulligan samples a spring in rural Guatemala. A typical rustic well in rural Bolivia.

Top: Brendan Mulligan samples a spring in rural Guatemala. Above: A typical rustic well in rural Bolivia.

“In Nicaragua, you don’t have the equipment unless you have money,” says Delgado, a chemical engineer. Those working in the field have to improvise and create their own tools to carry out their research. Although a significant amount of equipment was purchased through the CIDA project, the challenge is to provide continuous funding for on-going equipment and infrastructure needs.

Brendan Mulligan, 28, agrees with Delgado. He’s teaching MSc students in Bolivia and is administering the new program which started in February of this year. “It’s a challenge we’re certainly going to face here in Bolivia and we’re preparing for it as best we can,” says the geological engineer who graduated from Queen’s before completing his MSc at the U of C.

Planning in a politically unstable country like Bolivia can be difficult, Mulligan adds. “Nothing is written in stone. It’s partly a political and partly a cultural thing,” he says. “People are not used to the same planning horizon as Canadians. You have to be extremely flexible.”

For more information about CARA: